DAVID HAYE is restive; the two-weight world champion simply cannot sit still although, to be frank, he does not appear to be trying particularly hard. If Haye’s erratic movements provoke any frustration on the part of Action Images photographer Matthew Childs, it is concealed by the latter’s ardent professionalism. So as Haye continues to fidget on a black cube that in size at least could be termed a throne, albeit making token attempts at following instructions to incline his head or rest his chin in a hand, Childs toils on. Yet Haye, infected today with childlike enthusiasm, remains singularly unable to contain himself; clearly, something plays on his mind, distracts and intrigues him.
“So, what would his plan be then? Walk through punches?” he asks my BN colleague George Gigney and I. Poor George is filming all of this and endeavours to keep pace with our subject’s perpetual motion.
It’s Lucas Browne again. Haye has once more averted his gaze from Childs’ lens, his focus diverted by our reports of Browne’s victory over Ruslan Chagaev for a diluted version of “The Hayemaker’s” old WBA heavyweight title. He is keen to discover just how the strong but limited Browne was able to pull off such a big surprise – this is days before reports surface of his positive drug test for the steroid, clenbuterol – but also if the Aussie would be likely to replicate his surprising jab-and-move strategy should they meet. We explain that Browne had been dropped, cut and was clearly losing before finding the pivotal shots against Chagaev in Chechnya, but that we would be stunned if Lucas were to attempt to outbox and outmanoeuvre a much lighter, faster man in Haye.
“Walking through punches is easy to say,” he muses pensively as Childs endures another unwanted breather. “But that changes when you’re getting hit with hard shots over and over.”
Around a week before Shannon Briggs flies to the UK and becomes the latest rumoured opponent for David on the May 21 London date he has reserved, we all congregate under the railway arches in Vauxhall, at the new Hayemaker Gym which is, somewhat reassuringly, next door to the old one. It’s around 2pm and while selected members of Haye’s PR team talk to us intermittently, his lawyer is frequently heard but never seen. Haye constitutes the epicentre of the publicity earthquake that so often encircles him, but somehow remains unruffled and today reserves special attention for Browne.
“You’ve just had a big fight happen in Grozny with Lucas Browne and Ruslan Chagaev – big upset, no one expected the title to leave Grozny but it did,” he summarises, in full media-friendly mode, talking to me, Childs’ camera, George’s tablet and the world beyond this almost windowless cavern. “When it was Chagaev, he’s been very protected, although he’s a very good fighter, very good amateur and two-time heavyweight champion,
he’s not a very marketable guy, he doesn’t speak English for starters, he’s based in Chechnya, which most people can’t get visas to go to – do you know how to go about getting a visa for Grozny?”
“I do not,” I respond, inexplicably betraying a note of apology.
“That wasn’t a feasible option for me but now Browne has the title, he’s based himself in the UK, he’s fought here, that’s a realistic possibility,” Haye concludes.
Feasible in the longer term perhaps, but not for his next contest, especially given recent revelations; whoever Haye does face however, this intimate space beneath the pounding tube trains will provide a familiar setting as the veteran prepares his reconstructed, 35-year-old body for battle. The facility could hardly be more handsomely equipped. Opposite the large boxing ring stands an impressive kitchenette replete with not one but two NutriBullet blenders – the influence of new trainer Shane McGuigan notable despite his absence. A plush sofa offers a unique vantage point from which to watch the sparring that takes place here, while weights benches and resistance machines complete a fascinating juxtaposition of exertion and repose. Overlooking the whole thing is a gantry which obscures an upstairs office and Haye’s dedicated support network. All bases appear to be covered, and the numbers generated by Haye’s return certainly vindicate this attention to detail. Despite a three-and-a-half-year hiatus, an unknown comeback opponent in Mark de Mori and a low-key undercard, the first “Haye Day” attracted 16,000 people to the O2 – where David began stage two of his second coming – and 3.2m peak viewers for a terrestrial TV channel, Dave, which had never previously broadcast live sport. These startling numbers surpassed anything Haye had achieved in his previous tenures as a world cruiserweight and heavyweight champion, while media requests for his valuable time have grown similarly in number – this interview was rescheduled from December. All this suggests a void in the sport, created at least partly by his disappearance, has now been amply filled. Boxing, the evidence implies, missed Haye.
“It feels very similar to when I was world heavyweight champion,” he reflects. “I’m probably doing more media now than then, which seems kinda strange. I’ve had to organise my days a little bit more. In the past I’ve crammed too much in and it’s had a detrimental effect on my training. So I’ll be training again tonight at 6.30pm, this is the last thing I’m doing today, so I can go home and chill out for a couple of hours. I don’t mind the media engagements, I actually like it because it lets me know people are interested. More people know me now than after I beat Dereck Chisora three-and-a-half years ago.
“In the time out of the ring I’ve made sure I’ve done lots of key, primetime television shows that have nothing to do with boxing. I always wanted to make a comeback and the last thing I wanted to do was come back and people were like, ‘Who the hell is he? He looks familiar…’ All those TV shows that I got a lot of stick for, going on Family Fortunes, I’m a Celebrity, The Chase, Celebrity Squares, I was just maintaining my profile, but it went beyond that and actually increased it so that when it came time to fight again, I’ve got more of a fanbase now, which is sort of shocking. I’ve got a different demographic that follow me now, a lot more children, a lot more females. I really like that. I’m a bit older now, and it’s nice to look out into the crowd and see groups of women at a boxing match. They’re not there with their fellas as plus-ones but to see the boxing, to see David Haye, and for me, that’s nice.”
It would be easy to misrepresent boxing’s estranged relationship with Haye as that of a UK scene lacking mainstream names pining for its charismatic former leader – but the Londoner yearned for his former life just as keenly. Invariably far too polished and composed to reveal his inner turmoil, this older, wiser personality – Haye 2.0 if you will – readily admits the low points and black moods which saturated his convalescence.
“I was down, yeah of course,” he concedes, languorously rotating his head to stretch and soothe those prominent neck muscles, before stifling a yawn. “You can’t just be blindly positive, I’m not that type of guy. I need to win, I need to know things are going my way. I needed something big, I needed some sort of sign that it was gonna be okay, that I wasn’t getting.
“It’s one thing saying, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna make a comeback,’ but I said that loads of times and it didn’t happen. I had three fights that got cancelled. I said I was gonna come back, I promised everyone, ‘It ain’t gonna happen again’; it happened, ‘Ain’t gonna happen again’; it happened. I kept getting injured, kept breaking down. I had an operation on my arm – a real heavy one. With all these things, the history of injuries, the operations, all the negative ‘Okay, he’s finished now, it’s over,’
it’s hard not to be down and to have dark times. But you can’t expect to be happy all the time. My life’s up and down – happy, sad, highs, lows. Win a fight, 16,000 people screaming for you, the next day, sitting in a café, having a crappy cup of coffee and moaning about it, no one cheering for you.
“I missed people coming up to me talking about a fight they wanted to see me have. I didn’t enjoy it one bit, it was probably the longest three-and-a-half years of my life. Laying up in a hospital bed, not being able to do the physical things I’m good at doing, was really bad… and not knowing that there was going to be light at the end of the tunnel, just blindly believing it because that’s what I wanted to believe. I always put my eggs in one basket, I always said that as a kid. People said I needed something to fall back on but if you put all your eggs in one basket, the chances are you’re not gonna drop that basket. I’d rather have one option: to come back and fight again. And it all worked out great.”
As well as healing Haye’s faulty right shoulder, broadening his appeal and increasing his earning potential, the extended break also afforded David more time with his seven-year-old son, Cassius. Boxing can be an unforgiving, pernicious obsession, one that eats away at an athlete’s mind, body and soul, demanding they sacrifice all other cares and responsibilities. Distance from the ring has allowed Haye to mitigate some of that sacrifice, gain fresh perspective and make the most of his boy’s childhood. The pair’s bond has been further strengthened by Cassius’ nascent promise as a tennis player. He may not share his father’s infatuation with boxing, but Cassius is already displaying the same passion for his own sport.
“He loves it,” Haye smiles with genuine pride, before checking himself self-consciously and quickly glancing away. “It’s nice to see he’s got my desire to be the best at what he does. If there’s anything I’ve transferred to him, it’d be that winning mentality. He hates losing which is exactly how I am. Some people accept a loss very comfortably, I don’t, I never have. He’s not aggressive but it’s internally, I can see it tears him apart, but I like to see that. There’s nothing worse than being a gracious loser, walking away with a smile on your face; I’d hate to see that. It’s nice to see that will to win and he always comes back better, if he loses a set, he always comes back and wins the next set.
“I still try and see as much of him as I can, but it’s not as much as I’d like because training is very time-consuming. The time I can see him, he’s at school, by the time I finish, he’s asleep. It’s normally based around his tennis. They’re like little professionals at seven, eight years old. I didn’t start boxing until I was 10. I’d love for him to stick with it and be the best tennis player he could possibly be. He’s not into boxing, which I’m quite happy about; he’s too pretty to get punched in the face; I’d hate that. I was never that pretty! Having him follow his dream would be a dream come true for me. I’m really proud of him. He’s not similar to me at all. Physically he is, but he’s a lot more calm, a lot less naughty, a lot smarter, he goes to a good school.”
Haye’s commercial success has afforded his son opportunities he never had, something David is rarely moved to emphasise. Confronted with that fact now,
and uncomfortable perhaps at taking credit for an act he views as his fatherly duty, the fighter acquiesces only a little.“He goes to a good school because
I’m able to put him in a good school,” he agrees, reluctantly. “Maybe we’d be more similar if I’d gone to a school like the one he goes to. I don’t really think about it too much, it’s just another thing that gets debited off your account, but it’s nice to see him being so academically in check as well. I was always just physically ‘The man’ – the fastest runner in school – but it’s nice to see him far exceeding certainly what I did academically. I had no interest in that, whether it’s because the teachers didn’t make it interesting or because I just wasn’t that smart, I don’t know. But the level he’s working at is heartwarming to see, it makes you proud as a father that he’s able to get these opportunities.”
There are different kinds of intelligence. Haye may not have responded well to formal education, but he has a gift – or perhaps a skill learned then furiously honed – for self-promotion. It is telling that the fighter remembers, at the last second, to don a Hayemaker t-shirt for our photoshoot and later refuses to have any shots taken with his new Bentley, as the luxury car company would not remunerate him for the privilege. Haye knows better than most how to propagate his name and to keep it lodged in the public mindset, regardless of fluctuating fortunes. He initially scoffs at this compliment – justified though it is by myriad column inches and astronomical fight purses – but quickly accepts that he has a certain entrepreneurial spirit not evident in the majority of his peers. He struggles, though, to identify its source.
“Naseem Hamed was a big idol of mine when I was a teenager, and I realised a featherweight, from Yemen, who’s based in Sheffield, can capture the public’s imagination,” he says dreamily, as if charmed by his own distant recollection. “And it’s not because he’s a featherweight from Yemen living in Sheffield; that’s irrelevant, no one cares about that, people just care about his personality, his ringwalk, how does he make you feel? He put a big smile on my face.
I don’t care where he was from, where he lived, all I cared about was: this guy entertains me. I remember thinking, ‘If I could somehow encapsulate some of that showmanship and get people buzzing – I remember when ‘Naz’ was fighting, ‘We’ve gotta watch ‘Naz’, we’ve gotta find someone who’s got Sky’ – I’d love this to be the case when I’m fighting.’
“Chris Eubank, what a showman he was as well. You had to watch him. Love him or loathe him, you had to pay attention, you had to stop what you were doing and watch this guy. And he took his time, he never rushed into the ring; he let everybody wait for him. I loved it. It was all in his time, it was all about him.”
And, even in 2016, a significant amount of ‘it’ still revolves around Haye. Anthony Joshua won his first world title before Haye has the chance to regain one, but the old lion perceives in that only another opportunity to enhance his own legacy and bank balance. The obvious joy Haye derives from the roar of the crowd,
the thrill of combat and even discussing rivals like Browne; it all offers a compelling counter to critics – and there are many – who insist he has only returned for a quick buck.
“I don’t care if they do think that, as long as they tune in,” he laughs. He has already confirmed he would rather be hated than inspire indifference. “The worst place a boxer could be is not cared about, not talked about, not written about and I definitely am not that. Whether people want me to win or lose, think I’m a sore loser or that I’m only in it for the money, as long as they’ve got something to say, I’m in a good place. There’s nothing that I wanna buy that I can’t afford or don’t already have, and if I never have another fight in my life, I won’t have to work, I know that. There are fighters who choose to fight and fighters who have to fight. My motivation is to prove to people I’m the best on the planet, plain and simple. I can’t prove that to everybody, so I’m gonna have to prove it to myself.”
Given Haye represents, paradoxically, his own biggest cheerleader and harshest critic, that could prove the most challenging trial of them all.